Thursday, November 13, 2008

Re-learning Optimism

This is not a political blog. There are plenty of those out there already.

That said, presidential elections have far-reaching consequences, including for those of us with an interest in education, children, and peacemaking. And with the election now a week in the past, there is just enough space that our first impressions have had some time to settle. What I've been most struck by is the near universal pride in the election of an African-American to the presidency. It is an accomplishment that has blunted, at least temporarily, the rancor that has characterized the political arena for decades. This is perhaps most evident in the acclaim offered by those on the 'losing' side last week:
  • Condoleezza Rice, the first African-American Secretary of State, her eyes glistening spoke about it in an interview on NBC the day after the election: "As an African-American, I'm especially proud, because this is a country that's been through a long journey, in terms of overcoming wounds ... That work is not done, but yesterday was obviously an extraordinary step forward."
  • Former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, on his blog, wrote, "As disappointed as I am that we have lost the election, I can't help but feel that many courageous leaders of the civil rights movement look down from heaven tonight with a smile that the day has come when a man is elected without regard to his color. I salute President-elect Obama for his discipline and tenacity that has given our country the opportunity to witness this significant event."
  • Less inclined to get caught up in the historical nature of the election but uncommonly admiring in his assessment, Fred Barnes, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, said of President-elect Obama, "[H]e's a colossus astride the continent, the most commanding political presence since Ronald Reagan arrived in Washington."
  • Even John McCain, in his concession speech, recognized the history inherent in the moment: "[Although] we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation's reputation and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship, the memory of them still had the power to wound. ...America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States."
We should frame this moment.

I doubt there is anyone who believes that this election marks the end of partisanship, but for those of us who have a stake in helping children and young people not only manage conflict but make positive changes to their communities this election marks a watershed moment. Young people became involved in community change on an unprecedented scale, changing the way that some adults think about young people. Consider this anecdote from a colleague's friend in Chicago:

My sister went to vote at 6:30 this morning. In the past, voting has been a very quiet occasion in the hood. This morning there was a line of folks. In the line were two black young men who she recognized as ne'er-do-wells from the neighborhood. They dutifully filled out their ballots and as it was being scanned by an elderly poll worker, she said to the young men "I am so proud of you." He responded, "Thank you, ma'am. I am proud of me too."

It makes me wonder what it is about this election - or this candidate - that made young people get involved. The cynical side of me suspects that it is largely a credit to just how bad things had become. (And I suppose there is some truth in that). The more hopeful side of me - a side which has really bloomed in the days since last Tuesday - is more liable to credit all kinds of things that are hard to touch and the mention of which call to mind the rhetoric of political campaigns: an historical moment, an ethos of optimism, faith in ourselves and each other. Could it be that they have become more than just buzzwords?

Beyond the buzz, though, I have learned from seven years of working to effect social change in schools that there is a lot to be said for having faith in young people. Community service is another one of those buzzwords, but to do it well requires sharing power with young people in a real way. It is something that carries inherent risks - that they will "fail" or "abuse" their power because they haven't yet developed the skills they need - but the benefits far outweigh the risks. At the conclusion of one Peacemaker Project a few years ago, a young student noted that, "Adults didn't think we could really do this kind of project, but we did." It sounds strikingly similar to the forecasts of political prognosticators in early 2007.

This is not to say that some projects don't fail - nor is it to suggest that President-elect Obama won't occasionally fail. He most certainly will, as we all do, but during his campaign he was able to convey a message to young people (and those of us who were young people some time ago) that faith in him would not be wasted. In order to ensure that it's not, it will require us to have faith in each other and our ability to stay engaged.

There are a lot of people counting on us.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Getting to Win-Win

Recently I heard this story:

"Two sisters were fighting over an apple. Each one desperately needed the apple. The third and oldest sister thought she would help the two younger sisters solve their conflict. She asked each sister to explain what the problem was. One sister and then the other explained that she MUST have the apple for herself, but that the other sister would not give up the apple! The third sister suggested cutting the apple in half. This solution was entirely unsatisfactory to both of the younger sisters and so they stomped off. Later in the afternoon a wise teacher came upon the two fighting sisters locked in their unresolvable conflict. The teacher asked each sister to explain the problem. One sister and then the other explained that she MUST have the apple for herself, but that the other sister would not give up the apple! The teacher then asked each sister why she was in such dire need of the apple. The first sister explained that she was baking an apple pie to take to her best friend's birthday party. The second sister explained that she was planting an apple tree to grow apples to give away to the hungry. The wise teacher then asked the sisters what they might do such that both girls could come out of the conflict happy. The sisters thought hard, but being the intelligent young women that they were, they didn't have to think very long. The solution was clear: one sister would take the meat of the apple to use in her apple pie and the other would take the seeds to plan her tree!"

This story is told as an illustration of a win-win outcome to a conflict. When a conflict is resolved such that both (or all) people involved get their needs met, then the outcome is considered a win-win outcome. Often times getting to win-win requires moving past people's "positions" (I musts have the apple!) and getting to their actual "needs" (I need to give my friend a birthday gift I know she'll love!).

In American capitalist culture we tend to believe that in order to win somebody must lose. The conflict resolution framework posits three potential outcomes: win-win, win-lose, and lose-lose. I find that frequently when we pursue a win-lose outcome we end up with a lose-lose instead. Thus, it is often in every one's best interest to seek a win-win. And besides, it's the kind thing to do.

The above story is a great parable illustrating a win-win outcome. However, when I do a Peacemaking 101 training, or present the idea of win-win to a class full of students (children or adults) I often face skepticism that win-win solutions really exist in the everyday world. We are so frequently reminded by everything around us that in order for us to win, somebody must lose - just think, sports, getting a job, grading on a curve - we're in constant competition. Not surprisingly, and as is frequently the case when it comes to working toward a more peaceful world, finding the win-win may take some extra work. Why not start by brainstorming some everyday win-win outcomes?

Here are a few I've come up with:

A student who is strong in a certain subject helps teach a student who is weaker in that subject: The weaker student gets some extra help from somebody who may have a different way of thinking about the subject matter; and the stronger student reinforces their own knowledge. As the famous saying goes "learn it, do it, teach it". It's the best way to truly ingrain something.

Service Learning: Students learns from doing service in/for their community. (This is the distinction I make between plain old "community service" and "community service learning". The latter focuses on the give and take (the win-win!) while the former tends to be thought of as a purely charitable or philanthropic endeavor).

Brainstorm more on your own or try this activity with your class. Let us know what you come up with!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Service Learning: Finishing and Reflecting

IV. Published Authors

The joke-writing and illustrating continues for several weeks. We collect a couple of dozen that we all like - both originals and recycled ones - and I create a page template that has a border around it, the joke written in bold print, and a space at the bottom for the illustrator(s) to write their name.

We spend one week doing drafts. Before starting, we have a conversation about illustrating. We talk about the books that we like the most and what they look like. The point I'm hoping to make with them is that the illustrations should be colorful and take up the full page. "What are some of your favorite books?" I ask. We take some out of the classroom library to look at. "What do you see? What do the pages look like?" The answers are just what I was hoping for: lots of colors, pretty colors, big drawings, pictures that describe the words. We take out some sample jokes and think about what the illustrations could be. It's another spirited discussion.

As children work on their drafts, alone or with friends, I walk around and point out the things that I see them doing. "You're using a lot of colors here." "That grape really does look old and wrinkled." "The king in your picture has such an expressive face." It's exciting. I tell them that everyone should do at least one draft, but they can do more than one if they want to. When they are ready for a final draft, they'll tell me.

After a few weeks, the drawings are finished. I tell the class that I am going to take them to a copier to create our book and that next week I'll bring it back to share. The teacher and I have agreed that we will make two copies: one for the hospital and one for the class library.

When I get back to the office, I make a cover out of clip art and and write a short introduction:

Why We Wrote This Book

This spring, we began working on our Peacemaker Project, a chance for us to use what we learned about being good friends to make our community a better place. We talked about who helps our community and about who in our community might be sad.

Some of us have friends or family who have been in the hospital, and we know that sometimes when they are sick that they feel sad. We talked about how to make them feel better, and we agreed that one of the best ways is to laugh.

And that is why we wrote this book. We found some of our favorite jokes, and we wrote some of our own. Then, we illustrated them with lots of colors, just like the picture books we like the best.

We hope that you enjoy reading it and that you laugh and share your favorite jokes with some of your friends and family.

When it's finished, it's a big hit - and it looks even better than I thought it would. The book is going to be given to the
Center for Families at Children's Hospital, one of whose many programs is their mobile lending libraries. We invite the Peace Games Coordinator to the class so that we can hand the book over to her (and so that she can deliver it).We finish the year with a lot of satisfaction and gratitude - and lots of laughs.

That would have been enough but for an unexpected email that found me at the end of the summer. It was from the doctor who came to visit the class the previous spring:

I wanted to let you know that the Children's Hospital Library loved the Joke Book produced by those great 2nd (and now 3rd) graders. In fact, they would like to know if you could make more copies to supple some of their 'mobile' library carts at their expense? Please let me know how much it will cost to reproduce and I will forward the information. Please say hello to the class for me and talk to you soon.

We gave them one book, but then they bought two more - an instant classic and bestseller.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Service Learning: Creating Community Change (and A Lot of Laughs)

III. Getting Things Done

With the seed of an idea planted, the next week we review what we have learned: Children's Hospital has a lot of toys - including Playstation! - but they could use some laughter. We spend some time talking about what we know about jokes.

I start by asking if anyone has ever heard a joke that they thought was funny. A lot of hands go up. I ask if anyone has ever told a joke. More hands. I ask if anyone has a joke that they remember that they'd like to tell the group. The hands stay up, even straining to get raised higher.

So, we start telling jokes. I start.

"What did the zero say to the eight?" I ask to a circle full of smiling children and anticipatory stares.

"Nice belt." The teacher laughs out loud. So do I. A few children do, but others are less sure, laughing more because the rest of us are and besides which this is a pretty fun way to spend a morning. I explain the joke (zero + belt = eight), and then we're all laughing together, although some more tentatively than others.

I try the Interrupting Cow Joke, which I'd originally learned from an eight year-old. I ask them if anyone knows the Interrupting Cow Joke. They all shake their heads. I tell them that it's a knock-knock joke, and ask if they're ready. They say they are.

"Knock, knock," I say.

"Who's there?" they respond.

"The interrupting cow," I tell them.

"The interru---"


I love this joke. We're all laughing. Clearly, this is my kind of an audience. Much more receptive than the late 20's, early 30's crowd who are usually subjected to my joke-telling. I ask the teacher if she's got any jokes that she likes, and she says she's not very good at remembering jokes, so I turn to the class. A few of the children offer jokes. We all laugh, whether or not they make sense, mostly because it's such a joyful conversation to have. I observe that this class has clearly found its niche. We get consensus that our project should be a joke book, made up of our some of our favorites.

I give the class homework. For next week, everyone should bring in a joke. They could find it in a book or they could get it from someone in their family or a friend. They could even write it themselves. But wherever they find it, they should write it down and bring it in, and next week we'll sit and tell each other some of our favorite jokes. The teacher agrees to put it in the homework log and we call it a week.

We end with a game.

* * *

The next class arrives, and most everyone has a joke. Some have written them down. Some just remember them. Some are holding the class library's joke books in their hands.

We go around the circle. I tell them that if they don't have one or don't want to share, I'd skip them or come back to them, but everyone should get a chance to share.

They are hilarious, even the ones that don't make sense:
  • "Knock, knock." "Who's there?" "Ann." "Ann who?" "An old wrinkled grape."
  • What do you call cheese that is not your own? Nacho cheese.
  • "Knock, knock." "Who's there?" "Fry." "Fry who?" "Fry me some chicken."
  • Why do you cross the street? To see the monkeys.
We're all smiles. And what's more remarkable is that we're able to carry on the conversation for more than 30 minutes, an impressive stretch for eight year-olds. When I think about it later, I think that it must be in part because of the novelty of the conversation topic, but also because everyone's involved. We've bought into not only the outcomes of our project (a way to help children in the hospital), but we've also bought into the process.

In the weeks ahead, we'd tell more jokes, look at what makes a good picture book, and get to work... be continued

See other posts in this series:

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Service Learning: Building Authentic Community Connections

II. How To Help

With a list of ideas in hand, the next logical step is to figure out not what we want to do but what would add the most value to the community we are trying to help.

Some years ago, I worked in a community organization that served homeless children. We would regularly receive phone calls from school groups that would call to say something like, "Our Community Service Club is looking to do a 'Day of Service,' and we'd like to come in and help the children." These invitations were often complemented by a suggestion of how they could help, given the restrictions on their time and what they hoped to get out of it. Maybe they could come in and play with the children or do arts and crafts, they suggested, so that they could see the impact of their work.

I understood the impulse. I truly did. Making a personal connection is always going to be more meaningful than collecting bags of donated toys or organizing a bake sale. But their view of how to help us was vastly different from our view of how they could help us.

One-day service trips, especially to spend time with the children I worked with, wound up doing more harm than good. They cheated the children in our program out of their very real need to form lasting and supportive relationships, in a climate in which so much remained unstable. What would add more value (and do far less harm), as cliched as it seemed, was in fact a donation of toys or money - or better yet, a six-month long commitment to volunteer every week and form those relationships. And when we explained this to the would-be do-gooders, we generally were met with understanding and agreement, if a bit of a let-down. Sometimes, we got the donation. Sometimes, they went in search of another, more authentic experience. So it goes.

* * *

And so, in my work with these second graders, the challenge was to take their impulse and to find ways that they could help, in a way that they had chosen and in a way that would not run counter to the stated needs of those we wanted to serve.

With this goal in mind and buoyed by a clear direction and a long list of possibilities, we mention what we've done so far to the Peace Games Coordinator at the school, who tells us that by a seemingly providential coincidence her partner is a researcher at Children's Hospital. After talking about it for a little while, it seems likely that we could get her partner and the pediatrician at the hospital to come and speak to the class. The goal of the visit, we agree, would be to help us narrow our options by giving us a better picture of what it's like to be a child in the hospital and how we, as a class of second graders, could make the most positive contribution.

The day of the visit arrives, and the children are excited. Dr. Euler is wearing his white doctor's coat and has brought some toy doctor's tools, such as a stethaschope and blood pressure pump, and he tells us what he does and what it's like at the hospital. The children are enthralled - and especially excited by the toys.

We share the list we've created with him, and he looks it over. He agrees that it would be better for the doctors and nurses to give the medicine. And that inviting the patients over to their house is probably not a great idea. To our mild surprise, he also nixes the idea of collecting toys. "This may sound a little weird," he says, "but Children's Hospital is actually a pretty happy place for a hospital. We've got lots of toys." By way of illustrating this, he explains that every room has a Playstation console, which gets a lot of wild-eyed stares of disbelief and some hoots of approval. Clearly, they are not wanting for toys.

He is, however, impressed with the idea of sharing jokes. Like us, he agrees that laughter can make someone feel less sad, but he adds that sometimes laughter can help make someone get better when they are sick. If we collected jokes, he speculates, they could add it to their library cart at the hospital. Having jokes that other children laugh at - or even wrote themselves - would be more meaningful than other books. "It's a thought, anyway," he says.

He leaves the toys with the teacher and thanks the class for their good ideas. The teacher takes pictures. And we end the class, of course, with a game.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Service Learning: Making Peacemaking Real

Spring means that Peace Games classes shift from teaching the skills of peacemaking to helping students put peacemaking into action. Peacemaker Projects are service learning projects that are developed and implemented by the students, with some help and guidance from their teachers. After four lessons to explore the concept of service and community, students begin the process of figuring out who to help and how. Here, then, is the story of one project.

I. Who Needs Help?

When we ask the second graders if there are people in their community that need, somewhat ambiguously, "help," we expect the usual cascade of well-meaning but somewhat recycled cliches (the poor, the homeless, maybe a police officer or fire fighter; all of them good and worthwhile suggestions). Instead, the class zeroes in on a pretty simple concept: people who feel sad.

Well, that could mean a lot of people, at least some of the time. Who are some people who might feel sad? we ask. One girl raises her hand and says, "Sick children?"

Indeed, we agreed children who are sick might feel sad. And then another child volunteers that she had a cousin who was sick and that, actually, her cousin had been in the hospital. It was a comment that helped her make a personal connection to the conversation - and it seemed to generate a more generalized empathy. After all, we all know what it's like not to feel well, even if we haven't stayed in a hospital.

Hmmm, so what could we do, we ask, to help a sick child in the hospital feel better?

"Give them medicine?" one boy says. "Or chicken soup," another adds. "Give them my toys?" offers a boy sitting at the front. "Play video games!" calls another, seemingly spurred by the reference to toys, which generates a lot of suggestions that we go play all kinds games with them. "Let them come to my house?" one girl suggests, earnestly but with a little hesitation since she hasn't cleared this with her mother. "Visit them," says a boy, with a tone of obviousness, surprised that he hasn't thought of this, "and bring them flowers," he adds. At this, another girl suggests bringing balloons, which gets a lot of support and nods of agreement. Side conversations start up about how nice it is to get balloons and about a time that they'd received balloons.

The more we talk, the more the suggestions come. All of them are written down. Eventually, the conversation starts to resemble one that we had earlier in the year, when we'd talked about how to support a friend when they can see that they're either upset or angry. That conversation had centered a lot on how you can make someone smile or laugh, even when they might not feel like it. We make an oblique reference to this, and sure enough someone offers, "Make them laugh! Tell them jokes!" It's added to the list.

Once we have a long list, we say that we should try to figure out what might be possible. We point out that we probably can't give medicine to the children in the hospital - the nurses and doctors probably want to do this, we say, and get agreement. We also say that it might be hard to go visit, especially if some children are really sick, but we don't know for sure. We rephrase some of the other suggestions: collecting and giving toys to a hospital, balloons (of course), making cards.

All of these are good, but what about the joke-telling suggestion. I'm drawn to it and its possibilities, but stuck on the fact that it would be hard to write a stand-up routine and bring it to a pediatric ward. If we can't go to them, how could we send the jokes in our place?

And then it comes to me, a joke book. It might be too much, but I suggest it, and it gets enough agreement to be added.

And with that, we take the list and summarize what we know about our Peacemaker Project so far: we are going to do something to help children in the hospital, children who are sick and who might feel sad. We don't know how yet, but we have a lot of good ideas. And next week, we'll try to find one that works.

We end the class, of course, with a game. be continued.
See other posts in this series: